Schulich school of Medicine and Dentistry logo Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry

Turning the page on scientific curiosity

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

“You shouldn’t be here,” the stranger yelled to Katie Moisse, PhD’09, as she made her way to a crime scene in the Bronx, a borrowed Nikon DSLR camera hanging around her neck.

The blunt verbal warning hit a nerve. Moisse was a few weeks into her first term at Columbia University’s well-respected School of Journalism—a newcomer to New York City and a rookie student reporter. She’d been assigned to cover the daily lives of immigrant populations in the city’s boroughs for a class project. This particular day took her into the messy aftermath of a hate crime.

“I thought to myself, what am I doing? What have I gotten myself into?” she said. “Interviewing police officers and distraught families—I was way out of my comfort zone and it showed.”

It was certainly a big departure from the science labs and academic circles she’d grown familiar with as a doctoral candidate at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. In a gutsy move, the newly graduated Moisse had decided to forgo a postdoctoral position in favour of pursuing a Master of Science in Journalism at Columbia.

“I think it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” she said. “But it was a really great experience in the end. And once I moved on to health reporting in second term, talking to scientists or understanding complex papers seemed like a breeze.”

As a journalist, science has remained a priority for the adventurous Ontario native, taking her to the newsroom at ABC News and the pages of Scientific American.

She found that news outlets were eager to hire a trained journalist with scientific expertise. “There’s a big appetite for good science journalism,” Moisse explained. “I’ve covered everything from big discoveries to the seemingly less important research stories that really capture what science is and how it comes about.”

The science-journalism combination was something she never envisioned as a career until developing a love for writing during her thesis work.

Born and raised in Kitchener-Waterloo, Moisse completed an undergraduate degree in kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. From there, she travelled across the pond to the United Kingdom for a master’s degree in neuroscience at King’s College London. Moisse returned to Canada and started her PhD at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in 2004. Under supervisor and mentor Dr. Michael J. Strong, she investigated a protein associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“I loved every minute of my PhD studies,” she said. “The camaraderie of our lab was incredible. Everyone was working toward a common goal, so we all shared in the frustrations and the breakthroughs.”

The 35-year-old now works in another team environment as a news editor for Spectrum News, an online source of news and expert opinion on autism research funded by Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI).

In her editing role, she helps determine what studies to cover and how. Part of the thrill is also being able to share important lessons from the field of neuroscience with researchers focusing on autism and even the public. “We want to bring people reliable and accurate science news.” she said.

Moisse shares an 800-square-foot living space with her husband and two young children in Brooklyn, and finds small apartment living in the Big Apple surprisingly agreeable.

“We love the lifestyle here,” she said. “We thought living in New York would be temporary, but that was seven years ago and now we’ve built a wonderful life with friends and family.”

As for leaving the lab behind, Moisse stays connected through her husband, a researcher at NYU. “My husband will come home from work and we’ll geek out over some science paper,” she explained. “I do miss the instant gratification of looking down a microscope and seeing something exciting happening.”

But ultimately, Moisse prefers the creativity that comes with combining her science and writing interests. “It’s scary to leave the comfort of academia, but I think taking a risk to explore something you love to do is completely worth it,” she said.